Breathing new life into centuries-old classical music
It’s nearly midnight when Gianna McGrath clicks on the link and leans in for a closer look. The glow from her laptop may be artificial, but everything about the music on the screen feels real to McGrath, a third-year music education student who’s been playing the violin for as long as she can remember.
She zooms in on the page and is blown away. Rather than just another generic piece of sheet music, she’s looking at a digital copy of the 1762 edition of Thomas Arne’s opera Artaxerxes – one of the most important to survive. It’s very late in the evening, but the thing about classical musicians is they have a deep desire to connect with the original. McGrath can’t help but let herself explore the details – the beautiful notes, the discolouration, even the title page proclaiming it was to be performed at the “Theatre Royal in Covent Garden” in London, England.
“It was really gorgeous,” McGrath explained. “To actually be able to see an original manuscript of something, or to see an original copy of music, it kind of takes you back, gives you another perspective of how they wrote music then. And then when you go to play it, you understand how they wrote this because you understand the times, you understand what their life was like … which is important to channel into the musical part, the performance.”
McGrath’s experience with Arne’s 253-year-old score was made possible thanks to a digitization project led by academic librarians at Western. To date, digital photos have been taken of about 1,500 entire musical manuscripts and scores and are freely available to anyone with an Internet connection. Too fragile to be signed out and handled, the originals are protected in the Archives and Research Collections Centre – known colloquially as “the ARCC”.
For Joanne Paterson, a metadata management librarian who oversaw the initiative, the music contained on those pages sitting in the ARCC could have new life. Digitally preserving centuries-old materials not only makes these important works accessible, but also supports new modes of scholarship. Indeed, after liaising with Brian McMillan, director of the Music Library, professor Robert Toft’s graduate students will utilize the original Artaxerxes and perform a version of it next year.
“By making these images available online, students can take a look at them, they can print off a copy of the original and write on it,” Paterson said. “They can make their own annotations on the music without hurting the original … They’re so excited and thrilled to be able to have it, and it’s great to know that I helped them get there. That’s the joy of making this happen.”
Academic librarians’ work may happen in the background – it’s not often spoken of or highlighted outside of the highly specialized library world – but their dedication to advancing scholarship in new ways is an important component of the university’s mission of high-quality teaching and research.
Without it, McGrath wouldn’t be able to cut through all the editions produced over the years and engage meaningfully with the original.
Only then can she play it again like it’s the first time.
Click here to see the 1762 edition of Arne’s Artaxerxes.